Ron MacLean might be milquetoast, but I don’t believe him to be homophobic

About half an hour after I rose from my roost at 2 o’clock on Wednesday morning, I noticed both Ron MacLean and Don Cherry trending on Twitter.

“What is it now?” I thought. “Are Frick and Frack talking about poppies and ‘you people’ again?”

Turns out it wasn’t about poppies, ‘you people’ or Canada’s milk and honey, delicate topics that led to the ouster of Cherry and his living-room-drapes wardrobe from Hockey Night in Canada in November 2019.

This time it was something MacLean said. Something stupid.

Ron MacLean

Now, someone saying something stupid on HNIC is not to be placed in the breaking-fresh-ground file, because there exists a boat load of panelists who natter with studio host MacLean on a near-nightly basis during the Stanley Cup tournament, and any time there are that many squawk boxes sardine-canned together you can bet your thesaurus that tongues will be tripped over.

Cherry once monopolized that market, using his Coach’s Corner bully pulpit and butchered English to pontificate on matters that branched far, far away from the hockey rink and led him into the quicksands of sexism, misogyny, zenophobia, homophobia, pinkoism, etc.

During his almost 40 years as the Lord of Loud on HNIC, Cherry got up more noses than a COVID swab stick.

All the while, MacLean played Tonto to the star of the show’s Lone Ranger, but he wasn’t seen as a faithful companion at the end, when Cherry went off on “you people” who arrive on Canadian shores for “our milk and honey” but refuse to wear poppies in salute of fallen war heroes who are lying in graves in Europe or only made it back home in pine boxes. That was his Waterloo. MacLean, looking every inch the stooge, closed the Cherry rant by muttering, “Love ya for it” with a right thumb up.

Many among the rabble remain convinced that Cherry can tell us what the underside of a bus looks like only because that’s where MacLean left him, if not tossed him, thus he should have been unplugged at the same time.

Accurate or not, the perception of MacLean as a Benedict Arnold is their reality and it grates like nails on a chalkboard as MacLean is permitted to prattle on.

Don Cherry

Unlike his former running mate, MacLean seldom bludgeons the language, often leaning on utterances from historical figures to prop up a point. (I believe it’s also his idea of a subtle boast, letting viewers know he has spent time in a library.) But he’s also a pun meister. He harbors an unhealthy inclination toward spewing groan-worthy puns that often leave viewers wondering what the hell he’s talking about.

And, really, what was Pun Boy prattling on about during the second intermission of Game 4 of a National Hockey League playoff skirmish between the Toronto Maple Leafs-Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night? He mentioned “tarp-off” men testing “positive” for something or other.

“You have a photo of a guy with his tarp off, you’re definitely positive for something,” MacLean said in a kibitzing tone to panelist Kevin Bieksa.

On first blush, that sound bite came off as shockingly homophobic. Was he actually talking about bare-chested men testing positive? Gay men, condoms and AIDS leapt to mind, perhaps because I have HIV+ friends. Great yelps of homophobia rang out on social media, loud and long into the night and the following day after MacLean had issued a quasi-mea culpa/explanation.

“Early in the show, we had a fun moment featuring a photograph of our colleague Anthony Stewart enjoying a rum party,” he tweeted on Wednesday afternoon. “That photo, along with a few others, sat on the shelf of Kevin Bieksa’s set for the remainder of the night. In the second intermission, when Kevin quipped that he was ‘the most positive person on our panel,’ I directed viewers to that photo, using ‘tarp off’ (i.e. shirtless) to specify the picture with the rum bottle, and quipped, ‘You’ll be testing positive for something.’ I meant the rum.”

Sounds wishy-washy, to the point of being fiction.

A tarp-off Bobby Hull.

I mean, really? It was about rum? Sorry. Show someone a pic of a half-naked NHL player and it’s unlikely their eyeballs will focus on the bottle of booze he’s holding. There is, for example, a famous photo of a young, strapping, tarp-off Bobby Hull working on the farm, and the bale of hay on the business end of his pitch fork isn’t the first thing you notice.

I don’t pretend to know Ron MacLean. I met him on a few occasions in the distant past when our paths would intersect while covering NHL events, but we never broke bread or tipped pints together. Like most others, I watched and listened to him on HNIC and saw a man who would rather eat the stew than stir the pot. Over the years, he has become increasingly milquetoast due to a strong need to be liked, and it’s entirely possible that his best-before date has come and gone.

But sometimes what we hear isn’t what was said, and I’m not convinced MacLean’s remark about tarp-off men and testing positive aligns with homophobia. Many in the LGBT(etc.) collective believe it does. I get that. As mentioned, my initial impulse leaned toward heaping scorn on him.

His comment was stupid, total frat-boy banter, even as Jennifer Botterill sat and winced across the studio table from him, and it created a dreadful optic of gays and AIDS.

Upon further review, however, MacLean is just another guy in hockey who’s made a dumb-ass comment, but that doesn’t make him homophobic.

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